Despite coming off a Super Bowl win, the New England Patriots knew they needed to improve in the trenches heading into the 2015 NFL Draft. They did that by investing five of their first six selections in linemen on either side of the ball.
The fifth and final of those selections came in the fourth round, with New England adding Georgia Tech guard Shaq Mason 131st overall. Seven years later, Mason leaves the team as a two-time world champion and one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league.
He also leaves the Patriots as one of Bill Belichick’s best ever draft picks.
When the team brought him in, Mason was seen as a project. Georgia Tech, after all, was a run-first team under head coach Paul Johnson. Mason was a perfect fit for this scheme and earned a second-team All-ACC nomination for his performance as a senior in 2014, but his outlook for the pro game was less than certain due to his smaller stature and lack of experience in pass protection.
Pats Pulpit’s own Greg Knopping wrote the following about Mason after his selection was announced:
Mason is one of the shorter offensive linemen in the draft, standing at a bit under 6’2” and 304 lbs. Nonetheless, he plays with a mean streak and is physically dominating in the running game. Having played at Georgia Tech, he’ll need work in pass protection and transitioning to the pro style game.
Belichick himself acknowledged Mason’s status during his post-draft press conference in 2015.
“This guy is a football player and from a run-blocking standpoint, I’d say he’s probably ahead of every other player in the draft,” he said. “This guy run-blocked in one game more than some teams did all season. He’s ahead in the run blocking, behind in the pass blocking. There may be other players that are in a two-point stance pass-block 50 times a game that in all honestly don’t run-block very well. He’s kind of the flip of that, which is a little bit unusual but it is what it is.”
The Patriots knew they had to do plenty of work with Mason, but they felt confident in the skillset that he brought to the table especially after watching him at the Senior Bowl. Mason was asked to leave his comfort zone that week and according to Belichick showed tremendous strides in this short a time.
And thus, New England felt comfortable investing in him. Early on in his career, the projections turned out to be accurate.
Mason’s physicality and power as a people-mover in the running game was on display right away. Spending most of his rookie season at left guard, but also seeing action on the right side and even as a part-time fullback, he immediately made his presence felt when exercising run blocks. His pass protection, however, remained a work in progress.
Work on it, he did. By Year 2, Mason was the Patriots’ starting right guard and already showing immense growth in this area — all while establishing himself as one of the best run blockers in the entire NFL.
Mason won his first Super Bowl this season, and later earned a second ring to cap off his 2018 campaign. He also earned himself a five-year, $50 million contract extension along the way. While he did have some ups and downs, most notably getting beat for a decisive strip-sack in New England’s loss in Super Bowl LII, he remained one of the best and most consistent interior offensive linemen in the game.
When the Patriots traded him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Tuesday, they parted ways with a 28-year-old who already has 113 games on his résumé and developed from an under-the-radar project into a legitimate starting guard.
Nobody knew this would happen back in 2015, including the Patriots. However, they saw the foundation Mason brought to the table as one worth working with.
“Each guy has a specific, ‘Here’s what we think he’ll do.’ Now, what he actually does or not, we can’t forecast that with 100 percent accuracy. But I’d say that’s the way it is with everybody,” Belichick said in 2015. “Draft anybody you want, but until you actually get them into your system and start working with them and see how their skills transfer to what you’re doing, I don’t think you really know until you actually start doing it.”
The Patriots took a shot at Mason, and he turned out to be a major steal and one of the most valuable members of New England’s Dynasty 2.0. You can’t ask much more from a fourth-round draft choice.